From Student to Scholar

I know there are more pressing matters in the world today, but I want to spread the word about a little book I just read, having picked it up from the Columbia University Press table at the SPEP meeting last week.  (That’s the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy — doesn’t exactly slip off the tongue like “SPEP”.)  The book is From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor.  I think it’s safe to say that I’ve already traversed this path, but I still tend to wonder whether I missed anything along the road.  Having finished the book, I can say “no,” nothing new here.  But that is only because I had a lot of excellent advice along the way, and I was outgoing enough to network a lot, and had enough hubris to try to publish with great publishing houses (like Columbia).  I think a lot of others never learned these lessons, or learned them too late, and many graduate students are just beginning on the road.  For all those just beginning or still at the early stages prior to tenure, I highly recommend Cahn’s book. For those who mentor graduate students and junior faculty, I recommend that they read this as well.

It’s a pleasant, short read at under 100 pages. The ten chapters are these:

1. Graduate School

2. The Dissertation

3. Networking

4. The First Interview

5. Dramatis Personae

6. The Second Interview

7. Tenure

8. Teaching

9. Service

10. Research

and then a finale and an epilogue.

It’s a good read, chalk full of sage advice on how to navigate the journey successfully from someone who made it all the way to being provost at CUNY.

This blog of mine gets lots of hits from people curious about the rankings of philosophy departments. If you are a student worried about your future, hell bent on picking the right graduate school that will ease your path, I suggest that you worry less about the rankings, focus more on finding the place that will prepare you to do what you love, look for faculty members whose work you admire, and buy and consult regularly Steven Cahn’s fabulous little book.

Politics of Attack

Today’s New York Times lead editorial echoes what I’ve been thinking about the ugly turn in the presidential campaign. I’m not going to try to say it better, so I’ll just quote the whole piece.  (I hope the lawyers don’t come after me.)

It is a sorry fact of American political life that campaigns get ugly, often in their final weeks. But Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin have been running one of the most appalling campaigns we can remember.

They have gone far beyond the usual fare of quotes taken out of context and distortions of an opponent’s record — into the dark territory of race-baiting and xenophobia. Senator Barack Obama has taken some cheap shots at Mr. McCain, but there is no comparison.

Despite the occasional slip (referring to Mr. Obama’s “cronies” and calling him “that one”), Mr. McCain tried to take a higher road in Tuesday night’s presidential debate. It was hard to keep track of the number of times he referred to his audience as “my friends.” But apart from promising to buy up troubled mortgages as president, he offered no real answers for how he plans to solve the country’s deep economic crisis. He is unable or unwilling to admit that the Republican assault on regulation was to blame.

Ninety minutes of forced cordiality did not erase the dismal ugliness of his campaign in recent weeks, nor did it leave us with much hope that he would not just return to the same dismal ugliness on Wednesday.

Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. “This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” Ms. Palin has taken to saying.

That line follows passages in Ms. Palin’s new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama’s ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she’s done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers — and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, “sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”

Her demagoguery has elicited some frightening, intolerable responses. A recent Washington Post report said at a rally in Florida this week a man yelled “kill him!” as Ms. Palin delivered that line and others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.

Mr. McCain’s aides haven’t even tried to hide their cynical tactics, saying they were “going negative” in hopes of shifting attention away from the financial crisis — and by implication Mr. McCain’s stumbling response.

We certainly expected better from Mr. McCain, who once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics. He was driven out of the 2000 Republican primaries by this sort of smear, orchestrated by some of the same people who are now running his campaign.

And the tactic of guilt by association is perplexing, since Mr. McCain has his own list of political associates he would rather forget. We were disappointed to see the Obama campaign air an ad (held for just this occasion) reminding voters of Mr. McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five savings-and-loan debacle, for which he was reprimanded by the Senate. That episode at least bears on Mr. McCain’s claims to be the morally pure candidate and his argument that he alone is capable of doing away with greed, fraud and abuse.

In a way, we should not be surprised that Mr. McCain has stooped so low, since the debate showed once again that he has little else to talk about. He long ago abandoned his signature issues of immigration reform and global warming; his talk of “victory” in Iraq has little to offer a war-weary nation; and his Reagan-inspired ideology of starving government and shredding regulation lies in tatters on Wall Street.

But surely, Mr. McCain and his team can come up with a better answer to that problem than inciting more division, anger and hatred.

Political Illogic 101

In Philosophy 101 one of the first things we teach is logic, along with logical fallacies. Here’s the big one we’re starting to see in this presidential campaign, as well as in some comments on this very blog (especially regarding Barack’s Mother): guilt by association. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ” Guilt by association is a version of the ad hominem fallacy in which a person is said to be guilty of error because of the group he or she associates with. ” In response to my Barack’s Mother post, one person noted that Obama’s mother once went to a school where she was taught by a couple of Communists.  Merde!  I have no idea if this is true.  But for the sake of argument, suppose it is.  So what?  The implication is that this association was more than coincidental but said something sinister about her parents’ character (in sending her to that school) and about the kind of person she would become.

My seventh grade teacher was a right-wing kook who imagined Communist conspiracies around every corner.  Does this make me a right-wing kook?

At a meeting in 1996 attended by about eight people, I sat next to Karl Rove.  I didn’t stand up and denounce him and disassociate myself from him and all the nefarious things he would later do. Even more “damning,” he and I were both occasional guest hosts of a public affairs program in Austin, TX. Does this make me like Karl Rove? Or does it mean that I moved in some of the same circles as he did and was being polite?

As we enter the final month of the campaign, we’re already starting to get this kind of ridiculous, ugly politics fueled by this logical fallacy.  Palin, the attack dog, is already putting it out there: Obama knew Ayers; Ayers was a terrorist; therefore Obama is somehow tainted, suspicious, and dangerous.  Any freshman college student can spot the fallacy.  Will the American people?

Notice that the fallacy is employed to divert attention from the real issues.  There is plenty to talk about: the effects of deregulation, the economy, foreign policy, energy, to name a few; and there are real differences in the two tickets’ positions.  Can we talk about those please?

It’s also employed to provide cover for racist fears.  How many times have I heard people say, “I just don’t trust him” even when they cannot articulate a single reason for this fear?  Guilt-by-association provides a pseudo-justification for distrust, a way of avoiding examining our own psyches and complicated histories.

VP Debate Gets Real

The vice-presidential candidate debate was really interesting — not that anything suprising was said, but for what it revealed.  A potential weakness in such a debate is the policy differences within a party’s own ticket.  There’s a real difference between Palin and McCain on capping emmissions, civil unions, and ideology, and Palin generally skirted the question.  Most of the night she dodged questions, whereas Biden flat out denied that there was any real policy differences between Obama and Biden.

With her lack of expertise and experience, Palin continuously fell back on old Reagan-style ideology.  Biden was able to get into real details as well as pitch his message to middle-class America.  The larger story going on here is how the two parties’ ideologies connect, or fail to connect, with middle America.